Q: What should be the role of business and industry in the education of today's youth, and what strategies can realistically be put in place by business now to foster innovation on the widest possible range of platforms?
A: Businesses everywhere have to compete in a world that's changing faster than ever. To keep pace they need people who can consistently generate new ideas and adapt to constant change. Many companies say it's getting harder to find these people. One of the major reasons is education. All over the world, formal education systematically suppresses creative thinking and flexibility. National strategies to raise standards in education are making matters worse because they're rooted in an old model of economic development and a narrow view of intelligence. For economic, cultural and political reasons, creativity should be promoted systematically at all levels of education, alongside literacy and numeracy.
Most national systems of education weren't designed to promote creativity: their purpose was conformity. They developed in the 18th and 19th centuries to meet the needs of the industrial economies, which typically needed a workforce that was roughly 80% manual and 20% professional. National education systems were structured accordingly. They prioritized the subjects that seemed most relevant to working life, including math, languages and sciences, and they emphasized particular sorts of academic ability. The system worked well enough. Most people had to do manual jobs and had a fairly basic education: for the minority who went to college, a degree was a passport to a secure job in a suit.
Two factors have changed all of that: the emergence of the knowledge economy and the demand for intellectual labor, and population growth. For both reasons, the numbers of people in education are expanding exponentially. In the next 30 years, more people worldwide will gain academic qualifications than since the beginning of history. As a result, the currency value of academic qualifications is tumbling. A college degree is no longer a passport to a job, at best it's a visa. The minimum requirement for many professional jobs is now a Master's degree, even a PhD. What next? Nobel prizes? The value of academic skills is also declining. Companies now face an unusual crisis in graduate recruitment. It's not that there aren't enough graduates to go around, it's that too many of them can't communicate, work in teams or think creatively. I'll come back to education in a moment, but what can companies do to promote creativity for themselves?
The starting point is to challenge three misconceptions that we pick up at school and have reinforced at work. The first is that only special people are creative. Companies everywhere perpetuate this myth by dividing the workforce into the "creatives" and the "suits". The truth is that we all have profound creative capacities. Companies that are serious about innovation develop the creative capacities of all their people, not just "the creatives'".
The second is that creativity is only about certain activities like advertising, design and marketing. Creativity is possible in all areas of our lives and essential in every aspect of business. The best companies innovate everywhere: in products, services and everyday systems. The third myth is that you're either creative or not, and that there's not much you can do about it. The fact is that companies can do a lot to make creativity systematic, even routine - provided they know how.
Creativity is the process of having original ideas: innovation is putting them into practice. Creativity is a function of intelligence, and human intelligence is complex and dynamic. This is why the world is full of music, dance, architecture, design, practical technology, relationships and values. Different people have different creative strengths - in music, or mathematics, or working with clay, or software, or images or with people. Real creativity comes from finding your medium, from being in your element. The most creative companies recognize this in how they recruit, position and train all their staff, not just a few.
Personal creativity is stimulated by the ideas of other people: this is why creative companies are constantly forming and reforming creative teams. Creative insights often come from making connections between different fields. This is why the best creative teams are cross-disciplinary.
Some organisations are plainly more creative than others. Levels of organisational creativity are affected by three factors: habits - how people relate and work with each other; habitats - the physical environment in which they work; and operating systems - the management processes that support the business. Each can inhibit creativity and each can be changed to promote it.
The challenges of innovation that individual organizations face are specific, and there are immediate and practical ways to tackle them. In essence though, they are trying to remedy problems of creative confidence and capability that originate in education. The challenges of reforming education are profound and need long-term, collective action. The stakes are high and the need is urgent.
We are living in times of revolution. This revolution is comparable to the Industrial Revolution and it has still hardly begun. Young people leaving school in 2005 may be retiring in 2050. They're likely to change occupations several times. Many will have jobs that haven't been invented yet, in businesses we can't imagine. The changes we face are not only economic: in the most profound sense, they are cultural. They infuse every aspect of how we live and relate to each other: what we think about, believe and value. We expect education to give people the skills and qualities they need for this new world. The political response is to emphasize the need to raise standards. Of course we should. There's no point in lowering them. But standards of what? Raising standards is no good if they're the wrong standards.
The idea that traditional academic education still provides a direct route to permanent employment is simply irrational. Yet many national governments cling to the belief, presumably because they don't question the assumptions on which it's based. In the interests of raising traditional academic standards, schools are now encased in standardized testing regimes that shrivel the creativity of teachers and students alike. This can't go on. To prosper, in every sense, we need radical, not reactive change in education.
It's in the direct interests of business to get involved in education reform since much of it is in the interests of economic competitiveness. Individual businesses should engage routinely in creative partnerships with schools and colleges to exchange expertise and ideas, and to support efforts to reform at a local level. They should also engage in national and international political debate on education, not to promote short-term self interest, but to inform long-term strategic vision. The best companies do all of this, but too many do too little, except complain about falling standards.
It's often said that education is the key to the future. It is. But a key can be turned in two directions. Turn it one way and you lock resources away: turn it another and you release them. In education as in business, it's no longer enough to read, write and calculate. We won't survive the future simply by doing better what we have done in the past. In the future, we must learn to be creative.